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Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Credit: Reuters

Trump, ‘Alternative Facts,’ and Abuse

If you’ve worked with abuse survivors, this won’t be new.

Let’s discuss Kellyanne Conway’s comments about White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Spicer openly lied about Trump’s inaugural crowd in Washington, DC being “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” Here is a time-lapse video from PBS that shows that the inauguration viewing area was never full at any time that day, even at the height of the festivities.

Conway said Spicer was merely using “alternative facts.” Clearly, they are both liars, as is their boss. But why?

I wrote about this on Twitter but I think it is perhaps more effectively shared in a very short essay here. Some of this will be familiar to you if you have experience with abusers and/or survivors. Some of it may be painful. Please understand that abuse does not merely mean hitting or sexual assault. Abuse can be emotional and psychological as well.

There is a blueprint for this type of behavior — the lies, the covering up, the refusal to acknowledge reality. It is a replication of what happens in the abusive relationship, where we have a clear abuser as well as individuals who may be characterized as “victims” or “survivors” or a third, more frightening name.

I do not regard anyone in the Trump Administration as a victim or a survivor.

They are all of this third group.

We call them collaborators. The “look-the-other–ways”-ors. The “as-long-as-my-family-is-okay”-ors. The “not-in-my-backyard”-ors. The “he’s-always-right-no-matter-what”-ors.

I have no pity for Trump’s collaborators, including his adult children. (His youngest child is a minor and should be entirely off-limits for public criticism of any kind. I would also offer that I don’t care about the beauty and style, or lack thereof, of the adults who choose to work with and for Trump. I cannot bring myself to give a crap about Kellyanne Conway’s inauguration hat one way or the other.) All these people in the Trump Administration are adults, not children. Many of them are very smart and hardworking. They have no excuse.

I do not have firsthand knowledge of how President Trump treats his family and I would never pretend to know that. It may well be a beautiful, loving experience for all involved with no hint of unnatural or frightening control. Perhaps all his highly educated adult children’s deeply personal dreams have been fulfilled to the utmost and beyond, and they always hoped to work for their father in jobs he invented for them. My characterization of him as an abuser has to do with how he treats we the people of the United States.

I don’t hate Trump’s willing collaborators.

But I do see them.

I see him, too.

I am not an abuse expert in the academic or professional sense. And I know many people think that entertainers and authors of fiction and screenplays and other whimsies ought not to spout their opinions on politics. I am proud of the work that I do in those capacities. But — and this is important, and I am proud of this history too, and it perhaps lends my words here a tiny bit more weight for a few readers — I was not always a person who works in Hollywood or who sought to work in Hollywood.

A long time ago, I was a high school teacher. I served in the AmeriCorps program for a year in this capacity. I later attended Teachers College at Columbia University and obtained my M.A. in Teaching with a focus in English for grades 7 through 12. In my work during this time, I received training related to mandatory abuse reporting in the state in which I served in AmeriCorps and then in New York State, where I studied and did my student teaching.

There were times when I had to report child abuse. I got an uncomfortably close view of what happens when powerful people abuse vulnerable people, and when other adults know and do not want to tell the authorities because to do so would jeopardize their own alliances within the tiny fiefdom of a public school.

When I was in high school myself, I volunteered at a women’s crisis center and received training there as well as basic education in the psychology of the abusive personality.

On a more personal note, I have some experience with intimate partner abuse in adult relationships, and I have written about this elsewhere, including my most recent book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs. These (blessedly few) encounters led me to seek therapy as well as fellowship in a 12-step program designed for people who have been negatively affected by such individuals. From these helpful resources, I continue to learn more about abusive behavior as well as my own acquiescence.

Much of what I have learned and will describe below can be characterized as gaslighting (and thank you to Bina Shah for using the term, which reminded me I had not included it here. It is important to use these words and name a thing honestly and truly.)

Donald Trump has effectively established himself as the Gaslighter-in-Chief.

Again, I am no expert in this or any field. But then, neither is the president, in any field except being born into extreme wealth and, of course, in being a reality television star. Perhaps he and I aren’t so different in wading into intense territories for which we have no extensive formal training.

At any rate, this is kitchen table wisdom, much of it learned the hard way. Perhaps you will recognize some of these truths from your own experience. If so, I am very sorry you’ve had to deal with this. Perhaps this essay will be something you can share with friends or family who have never quite come to understand why you left him, or her, or them — or why you’re thinking about it. Or why you went back.

Here is what immediately sprang to mind when I read what Spicer said and what Conway said.

In an abusive situation, the abuser establishes ultimate control of reality. Facts are subject to the abuser’s whims. For example, a kid gets hit. He tells his dad it hurts. The dad says, “No it didn’t.” This is repeated as fact. The kid learns to agree to survive.

Another kid gets very loud about getting hit. He is repeatedly punished. Kid #1 is rewarded lavishly. He colludes with Dad to shame Kid #2.

Why would this child do this to his own sibling? Why would a wife and mother ignore what happens when her husband abuses their children? Why would a subordinate shiver at his boss’s viciousness and then smile in satisfaction when the Eye of Sauron turns on a different employee?

The answer is simple: rewards.

When you choose — initially out of a need for survival — to collude with an abuser, you will be consistently rewarded with gifts, praise, and what feels like love. The world of the abuser become your normal. The outside world doesn’t feel real. Your loyalty to the abuser is sacrosanct.

You will find this pattern in many accounts of abuse. I live in California and the nonprofit Tahoe SAFE Alliance has a list of characteristics of the abusive relationship. It applies specifically to intimate partner violence, but I find it applies to other abusive relationships as well.

Many think of intimate partner violence abusers as out of control, crazy, and unpredictable. However, the opposite is true. Use of psychological, emotional, and physical abuse intermingled with periods of respite, love, and happiness are deliberate coercive tools used to generate submission…Many will buy flowers, candy and other presents in order to win favor and forgiveness. This creates a very confusing environment for victims…The violence used by abusers is controlled and manipulative. Victims often can predict exactly when violence will erupt.

Manipulation in order to induce confusion. Charm. Control. Always control.

Can’t you already predict when the president will lose his proverbial shit on Twitter, often to shame and blame a journalist or individual who dissents, thus bringing on a torrent of harassment, abuse, and threats against said individual from his willing collaborators online?

Of course you can. So can his staff, which is why they attempt to limit his Twitter time. One of the primary roles of the collaborator is to hide the abuser’s proclivities and maintain a smiling face to the world at large. Everything’s fine right here. Nothing is wrong. Everyone speaks with one voice. We are a family, you see. He is our leader. He is good. He is always, unceasingly, and without hesitation the greatest leader we shall ever know. You are wrong and you are mean and we are right and he is right. He did not hit you. It does not hurt. You like it and we like and if you do not like it you are bad and mean. You are bad. He is good. We love him.

As the child who learns to shut up about the abuse, you learn to hate those siblings who speak up. They are wrong. Why can’t they love the abuser? If they could only love the abuser and obey and never resist, everything would be easier. Everyone would get candy and be glad, you think.

You repeat lies as reality because your abuser will reward you. You perpetuate the abuse because you win by doing so.

This also occurs when the abuser is your spouse or your boss. You get sucked in. But adults are not children. Adults have a choice.

And yet.

Let us be very clear on one thing: an adult who refuses to acknowledge the lies of an abuser who harms innocents is a collaborator. This is true regardless of his own history of abuse or her own fears, hopes, longings, and dreams.

Sean Spicer is a collaborator. Kellyanne Conway is a collaborator. Michael Pence is a collaborator. Steve Bannon, who must know very well the terrible, racist, anti-Semitic history of the phrase “America First” he inserted into the inaugural speech he co-wrote for his boss, is a collaborator. These are just a few collaborators. There are more. And you will know them by their refusal to acknowledge reality. Thus, “alternative facts.”

In the Trump Administration, we see adults who have learned that to perpetuate lies will earn them cash and praise. Do they know these are lies? Of course they do. It does not matter. The abusive leader rewards them lavishly. If they dissent, he will punish them viciously. If they apologize and fall back in line, he rewards them again.

And all the while, we the people suffer.

It doesn’t matter to the ones getting all the money, attention, and praise. And power. Always power. It is the most intoxicating drug of all.

The people who have chosen to aid and abet this particular abuser are never going to change. Neither is he.

But if you voted for him, or if you simply stayed silent while others around you sang his praises, there is good news: You can change.

Please listen to two episodes of the New York Times podcast The Run–Up: “The Trump Tapes Pt. 1: ‘He Doesn’t Know Himself’” and “The Trump Tapes Pt. 2: ‘Bottomless Pit of Need’”. Before the election, writer Michael Barbaro interviewed Trump biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Michael D’Antonio. You will hear Trump in his own voice, in his own words. You will hear a few of his children speak about him. More than anything I read or heard or watched in 2016, these two podcast episodes helped me understand what was going on.

Read about abusers. Know that the current president will never seek treatment for any issues he may have. Ever.

He believes he is an incredible person who is wonderful. The people around him reinforce this so that they can continue to reap their rewards. This is characteristic of successful demagogues and their friends throughout history. Learn about them, too.

Like his predecessors in the classic Dear Leader con game of pretending to care about masses of people he truly regards as unworthy and low-born, he has been consistently rewarded at every turn for lying, yelling, stealing, abusing. He will continue in this vein for the rest of his life. He will always abuse those who resist, and many who do not.

Never normalize.

Never accept.

Never agree.

He and his people will rely on confusion, manipulation, denial, accusation, retribution, and everything from the dictator playbook. This does not change the truth that there are no “alternative facts.”

There are facts.

Learn them, share them, and never give up.

In ways small and large, quiet and loud, subtle and bold: resist.

Always resist.

Women’s March Los Angeles at Pershing Square, 1/21/2017


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Sara Benincasa

Sara Benincasa

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast.

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